Thursday, January 06, 2005


Nebraska: The Beef State. We know that “standard” is a grade of beef “below good.” We should have known better than to impose statewide learning standards a few years ago. They’re making our formerly-great schools “below good.”

And it shows. The Fordham Foundation had two education experts take a look at the 49 states that instituted “government specs” on K-12 education – “standards” – and graded them, A-F. (Iowa is to be congratulated; it figured out that it didn’t need standards because all they would do is bring the level of quality down, not raise it.)

Well, we weren’t that smart. Nebraska’s math standards rated a “D” and our English standards got a “C.” Both were well below the national average.

You can read the full report on www.edexcellence.net, “The State of State Standards 2005.” Don’t miss the cogent commentary by language expert Sandra Stotsky on the English standards, and Cal State Northridge math professor David Klein on the math specs.

Nebraska’s English standards dropped from a “B” rating in 2000 largely because the 2001 standards, set by the State Board of Education, have “serious limitations,” according to the report.

Examples: there are no apparent expectations for vocabulary growth after fourth grade; most standards are so nebulous and vague they aren’t teachable, much less measurable; there’s a failure to show increasing difficulty from grade to grade, and there’s a total lack of acknowledgement of the substantive content of a model literature curriculum, with no suggested titles or even authors or genres mentioned at any grade level, K-12.

It’s as if the kids are supposedly studying English without reading or writing anything. It’d be funny if it weren’t so sad.

On the math end, the gong rings even louder. Nebraska’s taxpayer-financed math standards are called “sketchy,” “awkward and vague,” with a “heavy reliance on calculators throughout.”

Nebraska’s standards leave out the memorization of single-digit arithmetic facts, standard algorithms of arithmetic, the quadratic formula, and the Pythagorean Theorem. Nearly 40 percent of the 12th-grade math standards are given over to probability and data analysis, instead of solid calculations of algebra, geometry and trigonometry. The geometry standards were termed “peculiar,” and the standards on measurement required the kids to, well, measure, instead of do calculations in order to measure.

What should we do about this?

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: throw out our statewide standards and especially the assessments we’ve put in place at great expense even though nobody wanted this system, especially not parents, teachers and taxpayers. Why not? Because they’re nonsense. But the entrenched education bureaucracy has no motivation to understand that academics is what we want, not socialized mush.

Or if we refuse to do that, then we have to start a GI Bill-style vouchers system, to give to families who choose to opt out of the public schools at least a piece of the tax funding their child would have received if they’d stayed in. Then they can use that money to send their child to the private school of their choice, where they teach real stuff, and not “standards.”

One more thing that I’ve said before, too: to prevent this kind of thing from happening, and to save our public schools, we need to pass a law STAT to make the State Education Commissioner elected, not appointed, and to give the elected State Board of Education more power over the Commissioner. Then, finally, we might have a public servant at the top who is accountable to the public, and then we could begin to rebuild our schools.

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